ZDNet dialogue: Can Singapore be Asia's Silicon Valley?

ZDNet dialogue: Can Singapore be Asia's Silicon Valley?

Summary: Singapore government should take the lead by buying from local tech startups as well as introduce a special class of work visas to drive innovation and attract talent in the country, suggest participants in a ZDNet online dialogue.

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Does Singapore have what it takes to be Asia's Silicon Valley? And can it offer a conducive environment for local startups to thrive and drive innovation?

ZDNet asked these questions in an online dialogue featuring participants from the local startup and venture capital community: 

Asked to describe the local startup scene, the participants said it was one that was still young and emerging. Lauria noted that it took generations to create an ecosystem like Silicon Valley in the U.S. and it would take time for Singapore's to reach a similar level of maturity. 

I look at Silicon Valley as like Hollywood. If you want to make a huge blockbuster film that's global, you want to be in Hollywood.

- Vinnie Lauria, Golden Gate Ventures

They also pointed to the oft-cited fear of failure among Asians and the preference to choose careers that were less risky. 

Kotelawele said there were young Singaporeans who had chosen not to join startups, even though they had great potential to succeed, because they felt the need to work in big multinational corporations such as Microsoft. "This is hampering the growth of the ecosystem," he said. "There's a starvation of talent because smart people aren't working for startups as they don't want to have a failed startup on their CV. That's a disaster. You can't grow a startup ecosystem without good people."

Lauria agreed, adding this impacted a startup's ability to hire talent. He described how some companies under Golden Gate's portfolio were having a difficult time trying to to attract top talent away from high-paying corporations who were unwilling to take up risks with a startup that may or may not succeed. 

He said, though, this would change over time as local successful entrepreneurs such as Yuan, which company was recently acquired by U.S. networking equipment vendor Ruckus Wireless, and other success stores begin to emerge. "I can see how the first few employees [of successful startups] now own a Ferrari and drive that around the parking lot. That's going to help [convince generations to follow suit] but it's going to take time," he added.

Lauria also pointed to Singapore's uniqueness as a melting pot of nationalities and cultures which could not be easily replicated, noting that 52 percent of all founders in Silicon Valley itself hailed from outside the United States. 

We're not after workers to fix roads, and we're not after rocket scientists either. We need a particular profile of people who are going to be successful in startups.

- Milinda Kotelawele, ArgyleX

Regardless of their origins, Yuan noted the need to nurture Singapore as a place where ideas are born, shared, and executed. "You can do that by bringing great minds together, and you do this by making easy for people to come over here... It's certainly all about talent and bringing the brightest in a room and start [working on ideas]."

So why has Singapore still not produced a Facebook or Alibaba, or successful startups the likes of those from Silicon Valley? Rather than measure itself against other ecosystems, the participants called for Singapore to create its own definition of a startup environment. 

Lauria said: "I look at Silicon Valley as like Hollywood. If you want to make a huge blockbuster film that's global, you want to be in Hollywood. You want Hollywood actors, Hollywood directors, and Hollywood producers. To recreate Hollywood, it's very very difficult. Singapore is on track to have its own flavor, and be its own kind of hub for tech startups. It's something that's going to take time, but it's headed in the right direction." 

And the country is moving in the right direction because the government has made it easy to start businesses here, Yuan said. The Asian economy also offers a great platform to connect to people from a broad spectrum such as universities, different pockets of the industry, and the media. "It's so easy to connect and collaborate with them and the Singapore government also has been supportive," he said.

He echoed Lauria's view for Singapore to find its own path, rather than become another Silicon Valley. "But can we be a culture that forces more innovation and encourages people to take more risk and do something worthwhile? I think we can do that," Yuan said. 

Special visas, support for local startups

But can we be a culture that forces more innovation and encourages people to take more risk and do something worthwhile? I think we can do that.

- Melvin Yuan, YFind Technologies

To better foster an environment that can help startups flourish, Kotelawele suggested there should be a special class of visas to make it easier for startups to hire foreign talent.

Lauria agreed, noting that with no income and less than a year old, startups typically find it tough to fulfill local requirements to hire employees from overseas.

Kotelawele explained: "We're not after workers to fix roads, and we're not after rocket scientists either. We need a particular profile of people who are going to be successful in startups. So maybe there needs to be a different class of visa for people willing to come to Singapore and work in a startup environment. This should be global and go into the highly skilled labor category."

He also called for Singapore enterprises, as well as the government, to buy from local startups. This level of support for local products is commonplace in countries such as Israel, where many tech startups are successful because Israeli companies are willing to buy from unknown local brands, he said. 

Yuan concurred, adding that the public sector was in a good position to start the ball rolling. 

"A lot of large companies here don't have the appetite or autonomy to buy from local startups because they need to get approval from their [global] headquarters. It's the government that doesn't need to report to some headquarters somewhere in the world and can make a good assessment of whether a company is worth buying from or not," he noted.  

Topics: Intelligent Singapore,

About

Eileen Yu began covering the IT industry when Asynchronous Transfer Mode was still hip and e-commerce was the new buzzword. Currently a freelance blogger and content specialist based in Singapore, she has over 16 years of industry experience with various publications including ZDNet, IDG, and Singapore Press Holdings.

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9 comments
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  • No

    No, Singapore is not a true democracy, their culture does not promote freedom of speech and thought, they are good at following orders, and can be good economic animals, but not innovators.
    travellersolo
    • Democracy or not...

      ...it is hard to imagine creativity thriving in a society as authoritarian as Singapore's. Imagine what would happen if a company's star developer had his visa revoked for "slandering" (satirizing) one of the local bosses.
      John L. Ries
    • Democracy or not...

      ...it is hard to imagine creativity thriving in a society as authoritarian as Singapore's. Imagine what would happen if a company's star developer had his visa revoked for "slandering" (satirizing) one of the local bosses.
      John L. Ries
  • First, define what is a startup talent

    Singapore has many ingredients that makes it a good destination as a place for startups. But you are not going to see the same local/foreign talent distribution as that of Silicon Valley. If there is one word to describe Singapore's startup scene, I do not think it's even "almost". Far from it.

    My one word is "courtship". Love making hasn't started. The sperm hasn't got to the egg. We don't even know if the baby will be healthy. But Silicon Valley is already a few generations ahead.

    We are great consumers of innovation. But to be a melting pot of innovation, there's a lot to be changed in the local mentality and culture. Funding startups is one. Funding a change to the local mentality and education system is another. Because that's the engine that's producing the Singapore product - it's people.

    We are courting. But to court that woman you want, you gotta first know what that woman is looking for. Money alone is a divorce down the road.
    samueltruly
  • Not when people think technical jobs are dirty work.

    Singapore has a lot of ground to make up for to achieve anything near judging from this article by Bas.

    http://www.asianewsnet.net/Spore-is-missing-new-software-boat-51532.html
    kenlohwh@...
  • Competition From Government

    To anyone starting a business in Singapore, you have to bear in mind that government-linked companies WILL think nothing of stealing your ideas or competing directly with you. Any government projects that are sizeable will never be yours. You really have to watch your back and be prepared to waste your valuable years learning that Singapore government is NOT like the US government. Silicon Valley, indeed.
    RobertTubere
    • The perils of machine politics

      The problem the ruling party in Singapore faces is that it needs those companies in order to maintain its dominant position (it's called "patronage"). If startups get a fair shake, the local economic elite have much less reason to support the status quo, which might mean that some billionaire will decide it's worth his while to start bankrolling the opposition (remembering that Singapore is a de facto one party state).
      John L. Ries
    • Government role and funding for local startups in Singapore

      Agreed with RobertTubere on this. Singapore Government should create an environment to promote private companies and creativity, be a regulator not as a company to run the business. In fact, Singapore should privatize all these GLCs companies (except for those that provide transportation, healthcare, medical or anything that directly impact the lives of common people). And also provide funds or link up with venture funds to help local startups to thrive.

      Look at Singapore today, how many top privately owned or non-government linked companies are we proud of today? I can only think of Creative Technologies but that is already outdated and dying anyway.

      If the Government continues on its current role today like in GLCs, I don't think Singapore will be successful in nurturing local startups.

      So its not just the problem of acquiring talents for startups but most importantly creating the business environment for startups to nurture.
      leokh
  • Long-term, yes

    Even better, it can become Asia's Social Silicon Valley (SSV). By social I mean social impact.

    From 2009 to 2011 I spent a massive amount of time "on the ground" studying Singapore's potential as SSV. I spoke to over 250 people in or related to the sector, learned about their perspectives, and ultimately developed a case for Singapore: www.jamesnorris.org/singapore-asias-social-silicon-valley.

    The five key factors I suggest matter most are: access to talent, access to funding, access to markets, good business climate, and a supportive culture. Singapore ranks reasonably well across each domain, although available talent is its weakest link.

    I'm very happy to say that in the last four years Singapore has grown dramatically as a hub for social entrepreneurship. But as the panelists--two of which are friends--have said, yes it's still quite early.
    james-norris